Fort Lauderdale-based charter captain and fishing guide Jeff Maggio spends far less time on the city’s New River and Tarpon River than he did six years ago. Sewage and other sources of pollution in the rivers have depopulated their wildlife, forcing Maggio to fish more frequently for snook and tarpon farther south, off the coast of Miami-Dade County. Six pipe breaks that spilled 126.9 million gallons of sewage in eastern Fort Lauderdale during December, followed by more problems the following month, did little to enliven the city’s rivers or erase a legacy of municipal neglect.
“This sewage-spill stuff is nothing new … Every time something breaks, it ends up in the drain system, which then ends up in a river or one of the canals,” Maggio says. Submerged sewage depletes oxygen, killing the marine life that snook, tarpon, mullet and other fish feed on. As a result, “the fish just don’t come in here anymore,” he says. “It’s a chain reaction … There’s nothing left.”
Maggio – who helped to draw dozens of boaters to a January “floating protest” against Fort Lauderdale’s neglect of critical infrastructure – says the solution to the pollution problem should include a moratorium on real estate development: “That’s common sense.”
The huge holiday-season sewage spills renewed a debate over whether Fort Lauderdale has permitted too much real estate development – a debate that may intensify as the city commission election in November draws nearer. But don’t expect City Hall to stop all construction anytime soon to somehow save its sewer system. The current city commission appears inclined to treat property developments and infrastructure upgrades as mutually inclusive. Critics of a building moratorium note that taxes and fees collected from developers will play an important role as the city embarks on an expensive plan to upgrade its systems. Some also say that as the city’s population continues to grow, scarcity will make life harder for those seeking affordable housing.
Mayor Dean Trantalis did not rule out a moratorium on real estate development in a town-hall speech three days prior to the floating protest on the New River, where some participants carried signs with such messages as “2020 Resolute – No Pollute” and “Make Our Water Great Again.”
In his speech, Trantalis detailed about $600 million of planned spending over the next five years to upgrade not only the city’s wastewater system but also the drinking water and stormwater drainage systems. He said the ambitious plan for improving infrastructure “represents an undertaking without precedent in the history of the city of Fort Lauderdale, in size and in scope … This work is critical in light of climate change: high tides and heavy rains now more frequently flood our low-lying areas.”
The mayor also said city commissioners plan to discuss whether overdevelopment or neglected infrastructure was the primary cause of the December sewage spills. “Our commission will schedule a conversation on that, and we will invite the public at the time for us to make that decision,” Trantalis said. “Many people think it has been overdevelopment in our downtown and surrounding areas. Other people say it’s just that we have neglected routine maintenance and our infrastructure overall. I don’t know the answer to that question. We need to have a conversation on that.” Later he suggested that the city’s Infrastructure Task Force, which had been due to disband this month, could investigate the problem.
Trantalis also outlined why a moratorium on development could prove ineffective or counterproductive. “First of all, even if we were to have a moratorium starting tomorrow, it doesn’t mean the building is going to stop,” the mayor said, because “previous commissions have voted for new buildings, some of which you see under construction and some which have yet to break ground.” Stopping construction would stop the collection of local taxes and fees from developers at a time when the city faces more than $1 billion of long-term spending to strengthen its wastewater, stormwater and drinking water systems.
Trantalis is also a longtime critic of the city’s habit of using utility revenues – money meant for areas like wastewater – to cover general expenses. This city commission has vowed to stop the practice, but they’ve also said it will take three to four years to do so as doing it any more quickly would be too much of a shock to the city’s budget.
Real Estate Reality Check
A moratorium on development also could worsen the plight of residents who struggle to find affordable housing in Fort Lauderdale. “If you restrict the number of units we have, that’s going to raise the price of housing,” Trantalis said.
But some Fort Lauderdale homeowners worry that their property values will fall because of the city’s infrastructure problems. A resident of Las Olas Isles told city commissioners at a recent meeting that homeowners will pay dearly for the spills: “The water bills are going to go up, the taxes are going to go up, and the values of the homes are going to drop dramatically because of this catastrophe.”
Several real estate agents say they have concerns about the breaks’ effect on housing market conditions in such hard-hit neighborhoods as Rio Vista and Victoria Park. “I’ve been watching it and wondering if this is going to kill the real estate market here. But I haven’t got any solid proof of that yet,” says Paul Straub, an agent of Victoria Park Realty and a resident of Victoria Park, where a sewer main on NE Fifth Street broke in two places on Dec. 27 and 28. Prior to the break in December, the iron sewer pipe had burst three times since 2016. “We haven’t had a lot of people walking in the door wanting to buy something in Victoria Park lately,” Straub says. “But it’s kind of early to tell.”
The sewage-spill impact on the home resale market may have been harsher than agents would admit. “I heard different. I heard that in Rio Vista, people canceled showings, people were waiting to sell, or perhaps taking their houses off the market,” says Danny Grant, vice president of Fort Lauderdale-based public relations agency Pierson Grant.
As a city that markets itself as the “Venice of America,” Fort Lauderdale may need more than just new infrastructure. “In addition to the infrastructure plan, there should also be an environmental plan,” Grant says. “In a place like Fort Lauderdale, clean water shouldn’t even be a question.”
Yet waterways took a big hit from the December sewage spills. To protect high-priced property in upscale Rio Vista and other neighborhoods from wastewater flooding, city officials decided to move spilled sewage off city streets and into adjacent bodies of water. “It would have found its way there naturally,” Chris Lagerbloom, the city manager, told commissioners at a conference meeting. “We made a very conscious decision that it was important to protect property from being inundated with sewage.”
The city manager said sewer pipes in Fort Lauderdale often fail due to water infiltration that settles on the bottom of the pipes, contributing to wear and tear that causes them to burst apart under the force of sewage flows. Pipelines can also degrade as they age. The municipal sewer system has 111 miles of pipelines, including 13 miles of pipes installed prior to 1980, according to Hazen & Sawyer, a consulting firm retained by the city.
“Forty years is a pretty long time for pipes,” says Berrin Tansel, professor of environmental engineering and undergraduate program director for the civil and environmental engineering department at Florida International University. “Pipes are like human beings: as they get older, the probability of failure will increase every year… When pipes start breaking, they usually are close to each other, and usually in an older area.” A moratorium on real estate development may not be enough to fix Fort Lauderdale’s sewer problems, because when sewer failures accumulate, they do so for multiple reasons, says Tansel, whose primary areas of interest are water treatment, hazardous and industrial waste management, and landfill processes. “It’s never one thing. It’s a combination,” she says, citing such elements as weather, population growth and infrastrcture age. “It’s never one person’s fault … People like to point their finger at something, but it’s hard to point their finger at one thing.”
Fred Bloetscher points at municipal budget tricks that spread in the aftermath of the Great Recession more than a decade ago. Fort Lauderdale is one of many cities that started diverting some of their utility revenues to cover non-utility costs after the worst economic recession since the 1930s, according to research by Bloetscher, professor and associate dean for undergraduate studies in the college of engineering at Florida Atlantic University. “When the Great Recession hit in 2008, you had a lot of communities that lost half their tax base, and they went searching for a solution. And it was easier to raise water rates – and divert those funds to the general fund – than it was to double tax rates.”
Some cities “borrowed” from their utility reserves to help cover non-utility costs and eventually replenished these funds, but Fort Lauderdale “never sent the funds back,” says Bloetscher, who formerly served as deputy utilities director for the City of Hollywood and assistant utilities administrator for Collier County. Fort Lauderdale “didn’t plan on just ‘borrowing’ the funds from utility [reserves] … In the last 10 years, I guess the tax base hasn’t come back as fast as they hoped it would.”
Part of the city’s emergency response to the spills continued throughout the winter season. In Rio Vista, where the first of the city’s six holiday-season sewage spills erupted on Dec. 10, a private contractor was expected by early April to build a new connection to a sewage pump station as a substitute for a disintegrated force main. That will allow crews to disassemble an above-ground pipe assembled in Rio Vista as a temporary bypass for sewage flows.
“It doesn’t mean people are happy. They’re upset and I’m upset, too,” says City Commissioner Ben Sorensen, whose district includes Rio Vista. “But they understand where we’re heading. They understand that we’re investing significant dollars in neglected infrastructure.”
Paying the Price
Among other post-spill projects, the city also has two contractors installing a replacement for a broken sewage collection pipe that extends about seven miles from the Coral Ridge Country Club to the municipal sewage treatment plant at Port Everglades. After the broken pipe is taken out of service, the city plans to rehabilitate it and retain it as a redundant option in case the new line is ever inoperable for any reason. The $65 million project is expected to be done by the middle of next year.
That’s just one of multiple investments in infrastructure that the city is planning to make, starting with about $600 million over the next five years and an estimated total of $1.4 billion over the next 20 years.
Where will the money come from? Some will come from residential property developers, who recently started paying significantly higher one-time fees to connect new homes to the city’s water and wastewater systems. In September, city commissioners jacked up the combined fee for water and sewer connections from $2,037 to $3,865, an 89 percent increase. The connection-fee increase, the first one in years, took effect on Dec. 16.
Real estate developers also may pay more in other ways to help cover the cost of utility infrastructure. “The leadership of the business community and representatives of many developers have already told me they understand the situation and want to help proactively in helping to resolve the infrastructure challenges that we have today,” Trantalis said in his town-hall speech, citing “their willingness to pay their fair share … Residents should not shoulder the entire burden.”
Indeed, residential customers will get a reprieve on monthly utility rates during the city’s 2020 fiscal year. The monthly water and wastewater rate for a typical customer using 5,000 gallons a month went up just 1 percent, from $66.27 to $67.13.
But a series of annual rate increases for water and sewer service may unfold after 2020. Santec Corp., a consulting firm the city retained for utility guidance, has recommended city approval of 5 percent increases in water and sewer rates in each year from 2021 through 2024. The financial impact would be particularly acute for water and sewer customers residing outside Fort Lauderdale, who pay a 25 percent surcharge for the city’s service.
Borrowing more money to upgrade infrastructure is clearly a viable option for Fort Lauderdale’s creditworthy government. The city has maintained high credit ratings despite the sewage debacle. In January, Standard & Poor’s raised its credit rating for the city’s general obligation bonds from AA+ to AAA, and Moody’s upgraded its outlook for the bonds from stable to positive. Nisha Rajan, the lead analyst behind the Moody’s credit report, says solid growth from multiple sources of municipal revenue is a key factor in the positive outlook for the city’s general obligation bonds. “The economic development and growth the city is seeing is contributing to increased revenue across the board,” he says.
Funds for utility improvements also are expected to grow as a result of the city commission’s plan to gradually end the practice of transferring utility revenues to cover non-utility expenses. “The prior administration raided the utility funds and spent the money to balance the budget for the city’s general operation,” Trantalis said in his Jan. 9 speech. “This shell game took $20 million a year that should have been earmarked for utility maintenance and upgrades. In all, they drained $120 million in reserves.”
Commissioners had decided to wean the city’s general operations off the use of utility money over four years, but the commissioners and the city manager now believe they can shorten the time span to less than three years. “Had we attempted it all at once, it would have shocked the budgetary system,” Trantalis told his town-hall audience.
Tap Water Worries
Both the sewage crisis and recent tap water emergencies were shocking reminders of Fort Lauderdale’s exposure to infrastructure issues.
Last summer, a subcontractor working for Florida Power & Light at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport accidentally punctured a pipe carrying raw water from a wellfield west of the airport to the Fiveash Regional Water Treatment Plant, shutting off the flow of drinking water for most of a summer day not only in Fort Lauderdale but also in Lauderdale-By-The-Sea, Oakland Park, Port Everglades, Sea Ranch Lakes, Wilton Manors and sections of Davie and Tamarac.
The July 17 shutoff triggered a 48-hour boil-water notice. Residents were advised to use only boiled tap water or bottled water for drinking, making ice, preparing food, washing dishes and brushing teeth. Restoring the water supply took longer than initially expected, largely because a city map of Fort Lauderdale’s underground water system failed to show the exact location of the nearest valve where crews could turn off the flow of raw water into the broken pipe.
More recently, a series of water main breaks put some residents in neighborhoods from Riverside Park to Victoria Park to parts of the beach under boil orders.
The troubles underscored the city’s costly challenges not just on the sewer side but also the water side of its utility operations. A report by consulting firm Carollo recommends replacing the city’s 65-year-old Fiveash Water Treatment Plant with a new state-of-the-art plant equipped to perform a blend of water-treatment processes (nanofiltration and ion exchange). The estimated price would be $350 million.
“The issues at Fiveash are no secret, with coloration being the most obvious to the public,” Mayor Trantalis said in his town-hall speech. “We have yellow water.” (The city’s raw water comes from the Biscayne Aquifer, a shallow aquifer in South Florida with high organic content that accounts for the yellow color, which existing treatment processes can’t remove.)
Municipal infrastructure issues hardly make Fort Lauderdale unique. “Miami, Tampa, Boca, Jacksonville and Daytona Beach have all faced sewage infrastructure issues recently,” the mayor said.
Some Florida cities have taken big steps to correct problems with their wastewater systems – usually in response to legal or regulatory action, according to Terry Gibson, legislative affairs director of the American Water Security Project, a not-for-profit group that promotes efforts to reduce water pollution.
“Very few cities or counties have been proactive,” Gibson says. “Typically, someone has had to sue them, or a government agency such as the EPA or [the state’s] DEP has had to come in and put them under what’s called a consent order – like Fort Lauderdale’s under – and a federal judge has oversight.”
In 2014, for example, the DEP issued a consent order against St. Pete Beach to force the small Tampa-area town to improve its sewer system. In 2016, the town government imposed a moratorium on condo and rental apartment developments, pending upgrades to its sewer system. Al Johnson, the mayor of St. Pete Beach, says he expects the town to lift its ongoing multifamily moratorium when a $12 million sewer-improvement project is completed by the summer of 2021.
Among the Florida communities that have tackled serious sewage problems, “Orlando is probably the best that I’m aware of,” Gibson says. “They’ve just done a good job of getting people off septic tanks and increasing their treatment levels and their treatment capacity.”
Sea level rise has compounded the challenge of fixing Florida sewer systems, Gibson says. “Climate change is making this problem so much worse with the influx and infiltration of stormwater in these systems.”